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Session 2006 - 07
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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2007

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Greg Pope
Byers, Mr. Stephen (North Tyneside) (Lab)
Farrelly, Paul (Newcastle-under-Lyme) (Lab)
Foster, Mr. Michael (Worcester) (Lab)
Hanson, Mr. David (Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office)
Heyes, David (Ashton-under-Lyne) (Lab)
Lancaster, Mr. Mark (North-East Milton Keynes) (Con)
Mole, Chris (Ipswich) (Lab)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Rifkind, Sir Malcolm (Kensington and Chelsea) (Con)
Robertson, Mr. Laurence (Tewkesbury) (Con)
Robinson, Mr. Peter (Belfast, East) (DUP)
Simpson, Alan (Nottingham, South) (Lab)
Smith, Geraldine (Morecambe and Lunesdale) (Lab)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) (Lab)
Stuart, Mr. Graham (Beverley and Holderness) (Con)
Walker, Mr. Charles (Broxbourne) (Con)
Waltho, Lynda (Stourbridge) (Lab)
Eliot Wilson, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Second Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 31 January 2007

[Mr. Greg Pope in the Chair]

Draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2007

2.30 pm
The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office (Mr. David Hanson): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2007.
The order was laid before the House on 8 January and debated in another place on 24 January. I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pope. I am sure that you will hear an interesting debate on what I hope is a non-controversial measure.
Northern Ireland Assembly elections were called yesterday, and they will be held on 7 March. The purpose of the order is to remove any uncertainty about the definition of election expenses that will apply for the purposes of the forthcoming elections. Currently, elections to the Assembly are conducted in accordance with the provisions of several pieces of legislation: the Representation of the People Acts 1983 and 1985 and the Elections (Northern Ireland) Act 1985, which applied to Assembly elections with both specific and general modifications by the Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) Order 2001.
There has recently been discussion in the House about election law and administration, and section 27 of the Electoral Administration Act 2006 redefined legislation relating to election expenses. The Act, which was commenced on 11 September 2006, repealed several sections of the Representation of the People Act 1983 that were applied by the 2001 order. We must now ensure that new provisions are applied, so that the elections order is up to date and in place for the forthcoming March elections. Currently, it is unclear whether, automatically, the changes that section 27 of the 2006 Act makes are commenced on the strength of the 2001 order.
There is little practical difference between the two orders; we simply want to ensure that there is no room for any doubt about election expenses for the March elections. With that in mind, we seek to put the matter beyond doubt by introducing the amending instrument today. It will make it clear that the new definition applies in accordance with section 27 of the 2006 Act.
The order is, I hope, uncontroversial. It is designed simply to update electoral registration and expenses. We had planned to introduce a wide-ranging provision in electoral legislation later this year; however Committee members will know that the Northern Ireland (St. Andrews Agreement) Act 2006 was designed to ensure that we have an election, subject to a range of conditions. The election has been called for 7 March, and we must update the legislation to make election expenses appropriate to it. On that basis, I commend the order to the Committee.
2.32 pm
Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury) (Con): I, too, welcome you to the Committee, Mr. Pope. I have no objections to the order.
2.33 pm
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I, too, welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Pope. That is probably the most substantive contribution that I shall make to the debate.
My only other point is that the Government are in the habit of moving elections around. They set bad precedents in 2003, and as Baroness Harris of Richmond made clear in the upper House, we sincerely hope that this is an end to the matter.
2.34 pm
Mr. Peter Robinson (Belfast, East) (DUP): May I join others in welcoming you to the Chair, Mr. Pope? It is always nice to be presided over by a pope. [Laughter.]
I welcome the order, not so much because of its content, which is technical, but because of the clear signal it sends that the people of Northern Ireland will have the opportunity to speak on the significant issues and events of the past weeks and months. I know that you will not allow me to go into any detail about those issues, Mr. Pope, but it is encouraging to think that whereas this time last year there was legislation for an unaccountable Assembly where Ministers were not held to account and republicans with weapons were continuing their paramilitary and criminal activities and giving no support to the police, the courts or the rule of law, there has now been a transformation in all those matters which has allowed the Government to proceed with legislation such as the order before us. The people must have the opportunity to speak on such matters. The order is an essential part of that, because it fulfils the requirements set out in the Electoral Administration Act 2006 and brings them into the relevant legislation for Northern Ireland.
The Minister mentioned section 27 of the 2006 Act, which redefines electoral expenses. The principles and policy that underlie the change were debated during the passage of that Act and have already been provided for in legislation. In short, the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 made changes to the start date for the calculation of expenses for individual candidates, as the drafting of the Representation of the People Act 1983 was considered by many, if not most, to be uncertain and unsatisfactory. The period was considered to have begun when the person was declared to be a candidate. There was case law dating back to the 19th century on when the declaration occurred in reality. The 2000 Act changed the law so that the relevant start date for becoming a candidate was the dissolution of the relevant legislature or the subsequent declaration of candidature. However, there were also provisions to allow for occasions on which expenses had been incurred before that date, such as on the advance purchase of stationary and so on.
In its 2003 policy review, “Political Parties, Elections and Referendum Act 2000—Recommendations for change”, the Electoral Commission noted the concern of a number of parties, candidates, agents and electoral administrators that the start date was too close to the election, leaving a significant period of campaigning unregulated. The 2006 Act addressed that issue. The order is purely a technical measure to ensure that those changes are incorporated into Northern Ireland law.
However, today’s debate also gives us the opportunity to reflect on the fact that electoral law in Northern Ireland is in urgent need of consolidation. The Minister referred to his hope that there might be further legislation in this Session. There is a plethora of bits and pieces of electoral law in Northern Ireland. It is a shambles, very difficult to work one’s way through and in urgent need of consolidation. Given the various sources of electoral legislation, it is reasonable to conclude that as many people in Northern Ireland understand the full scope of electoral law as understood the Schleswig-Holstein question—I can see that the Minister immediately recognises the reference. Lord Palmerston said that only three people knew what it meant: Prince Albert, who was dead, a German professor who was in an asylum, and himself, but he had forgotten.
As my party’s director of elections, I have found it increasingly difficult to advise on electoral law. It is certainly not possible to do so without taking legal advice, because there is such a plethora of electoral law to deal with. As the explanatory notes to the 2006 Act make clear:
“New section 90ZA(1) provides that ‘election expenses’ in relation to a candidate at an election means any expenses incurred at any time in respect of any matter specified in Part 1 of Schedule 4A”—
the Minister fears that he is going to be asked a detailed question—
“which is used for the purposes of the candidate’s election after the date when he becomes a candidate at the election.”
Those matters include:
“Advertising of any nature (whatever the medium used)...Expenses in respect of such advertising include agency fees, design costs and other costs in connection with preparing, producing, distributing or otherwise disseminating such advertising or anything incorporating such advertising and intended to be distributed for the purpose of disseminating it...Unsolicited material addressed to electors (whether addressed to them by name or intended for delivery to households within any particular area)...Expenses in respect of such material include design costs and other costs in connection with preparing, producing or distributing such material (including the cost of postage)...Transport (by any means) of persons to any place...Expenses in respect of the transport of such persons include the costs of hiring a means of transport for a particular period...Public meetings (of any kind)...Expenses in respect of such meetings include costs incurred in connection with the attendance of persons at such meetings, the hire of premises for the purposes of such meetings or the provision of goods, services or facilities at them...The services of an election agent or any other person whose services are engaged in connection with the candidate’s election...Accommodation and administrative costs.”
The integrity of our electoral system is predicated on a limitation of spending by candidates. I believe that that is sensible, but the law must ensure that that limitation is real. I believe that the order goes a considerable way to achieving that goal.
I welcome the contribution that the Electoral Commission has made in the UK as a whole and in Northern Ireland in particular. It has made a useful contribution to the conduct of elections in the past few years and it could play a significant role in ensuring that elections can be conducted in as free and fair a manner as possible. The order is a necessary amendment to our complex legislation in this area and I am happy to support it. I believe that I have gone some way towards disproving what those outside told me: that this Committee would not meet for longer than 10 minutes.
2.42 pm
Mr. Hanson: I thank the hon. Members for Tewkesbury, for Montgomeryshire and for Belfast, East for their support for the order.
As the hon. Member for Belfast, East said, we meet today at an historic time; yesterday, the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach called jointly for the Northern Ireland Assembly to be elected on 7 March. That is a great step forward. As the hon. Gentleman noted, in the past 12 months there have been significant shifts on a range of political issues, not the least of which has resulted in Sinn Fein’s announcement at the weekend of its recognition and support of the Police Service of Northern Ireland. Much work still has to be done to get devolution back, but the hon. Gentleman and I share the wish that it will come back to Northern Ireland. I hope that we will have a successful election and a positive outcome and that the Executive will be restored on 26 March this year.
The hon. Gentleman made a number of points about the potential failings of electoral law and some improvements that should be made. As I said earlier, we produced the order now because of the urgency of clarifying the situation before the 7 March election. However, it is certainly our intention to bring forward a wider-ranging order on other aspects of electoral law later this year. The hon. Gentleman and others will have an opportunity to have input into that process, particularly if the Assembly has been restored and there are discussions between the Northern Ireland Office and the Assembly on those important matters. He will know that the Electoral Fraud (Northern Ireland) Act 2002 establishes a number of benchmarks on electoral fraud; the Representation of the People Act 2000 also provides severe penalties for breaches of electoral law.
There is always room for improvement. It is important that the electoral process should have integrity and that the result should be based on real people’s votes, not on any aspect of electoral fraud, or, more importantly, people being able dishonestly to buy their way to electoral victory. That is the purpose of electoral law.
The order, which deals with electoral expenses, will help to clarify the situation for the 7 March election. I look forward to debating further improvements with hon. Members in due course and commend the order to the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft Northern Ireland Assembly (Elections) (Amendment) Order 2007.
Committee rose at fifteen minutes to Three o’clock.

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